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Poetry and Punishment


Panel at the Conference of the American Society of Legal History, on Satire and Law. Co-panelists are Karl Shoemaker, from University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Ada-Maria Kuskowski, from Southern Methodist University. Karl will talk about Satan's failed legal career, and Ada will be examining legal satire in late Medieval France. The whole will be presided over and responded by Lena Salaymeh, from UC Berkeley.

I was invited to give a presentation for a panel on “Satire in Medieval Law” for the 2014 Conference of the American Society of Legal History1. The title of my paper is “Poetry and Punishment.” The event will take place on November 7, 2014, past Noon.

In a manuscript inventorying and defining juridical concepts, now preserved at the Biblioteca Complutense (Madrid), one can find a long list of concepts made for the use of lawyers in the circle of a Pero Díaz de Toledo2. Along with some entries with clearly legal concepts, like conditio or fideicomisio one can also find others less likely to be there, like poetria. Stop and meditate about it.

It’s not that poetry does not belong in legal thought and allegations. The question is why and how “poetry” became a legal subject and a juridical concept.

This question plays a significant role in my general project, in which I study the process of codification of Alfonso X’s Siete Partidas. In this codification Alfonso does not only discuss and translate juridical problems from roman law and the marginal glosses of Accursius’ Glossa Ordinaria. Indeed, he also translates, comments, and otherwise discusses other many important sources coming from non-legal traditions, like Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, narratives of many different kinds and origins, both Occidental and Oriental, or poetry3.

In the Siete Partidas there are two special sections where poetry becomes an important subject. The first one resides in the political and administrative legislation of the second Partida; the second one, in the penal regulation of the seventh Partida. I will delve into this question —how and why poetry became a subject of the law and a juridical concept— focusing on these two parts, and in particular in the laws regarding libel and satire4.

Alfonso, in fact, singles out poetry as a clear vehicle for libelous defamation, giving us, in the relevant laws, an idea about the creation and dissemination of poetry. The legal code offers as well a definition and extent of satirical writing, and locates it in different spaces –the court in the Segunda Partida and urban spaces in the Séptima Partida. On the other hand, satirical poetry contemporary to the codification of the Partidas –at the time, the poetic language was Galician, also known as Galician-Portuguese–, known as cantigas d’escarnho e maldizer constitutes an exploration of the language of defamation codified in the law5. Poetry and law share a language, while, at the same time, the Partidas acknowledges, with the Glossa Ordinaria, that “verba legis debent intelligi secundum propriam significationem, non secundum comunem usum loquendi”6. Law and poetry explore the language of satire and defamation from two different epistemological stances, exploring, as well, different meaning of the same semantic field of punishment.

Last Updated 6 years ago


Jesús R. Velasco, « Poetry and Punishment », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on October 4, 2014. Full URL for this article

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